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Politics is about Perceptions

The Honourable John Dowd AO QC is Chancellor of The Southern Cross University. Mr Dowd was Member for the electorate of Lane Cove from 1975 to 1991. He was Attorney General for New South Wales from 1988 to 1991, and a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in a Common Law Division from 1994 till 2004. He is Protection Ambassador for AUSTCARE, the Australian Refugee Foundation, and is Goodwill Ambassador for The Spastic Centre of New South Wales. Mr Dowd is President of the Australian Section of The International Commission of Jurists, and Chairman of the Executive Committee of that organisation in Geneva.


I want to give you a series of examples of how people alter perceptions to create a straw man, and to use it as a tool to both participate in and to distort the democratic process. A classic example is the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, who probably watches CNN, understands a bit about International Politics, and is not about to bomb any body with Nuclear Weapons or otherwise, but of course, if he creates the impression that he is going to do so, when does he do it? He does it within three weeks of the American Mid-Term Election, knowing that President Bush will jump up like a pop-up toaster and say ‘shock horror’, ‘United Nations’ and so on. It means Kim Jong-il is attacked by the overseas media, which improves, a) his ego, b) his status in a desperately poor country, and c) ultimately, will get money paid to him by somebody to stop doing what he is doing. So it’s really good politics.

In the United States, Bush of course, has an issue to run within a Mid-term election which he is currently losing, and he can then bounce up and down, and then silly people in places like Australia can talk about our defence capability as against North Korea and our Navy and that sort of thing. None of that has anything to do with someone going to bomb one country out of existence, but that’s the perceptions of politics. Each one has an agenda back in his own respective country, but that’s got nothing to do with the apparent debate about what North Korea can or can’t deliver in terms of nuclear weapons.

In Government, one of the arts of perception is to change the balance of an argument. The first example of these is the issue of terrorism, where you define terrorism as covering almost anything other than attending church, and even that can become terrorism under the definition in the act. Then you put up a raft of reforms to cover terrorism, or so you say. Then when your opponent is against those reforms, you say, ‘ah! ‘He’s soft on terrorism’ and you win votes. It’s an elementary technique. The perception however, that the raft of reforms are taking away Human Rights, for example: detention without interview, torture and all of that, there is no evidence whatsoever that they will defeat the terrorism. There is no evidence they will stop terrorism, but there is a disconnection that occurs so that every time, for instance, the Federal Police or the Attorney General will have a package of reforms ready taking away particular rights, taking away freedoms, the guarantees of our democracy, the instant that there is a terrorist attack, they are presented to say “this will fix it”. Of course, there is no intelligent argument to say that the measures won’t fix terrorism. Once that perception is created, if you are against the proposals, you are doing the wrong thing.

I’ll finish, ultimately with this. The art of politics is to articulate the unexpressed views of your audience, and what the audience does is they will say “yes, he is right. He is good. I will vote for him.” When in fact all that they are doing is agreeing with themselves, because the politician has simply articulated the issue, and the person is really agreeing with his own view’s, things that they have thought but they had not articulated it as well. So terrorism is one of those issues.

The issue of Iraq, an illegal invasion by Australia and in International Law, by the United States, United Kingdom and some of the others, was determined because Iraq had supposedly weapons of mass destruction. The previous question, which is whether you’re entitled to have weapons of mass destruction, isn’t the question. What country has weapons of mass destruction? The United States of America. Now they have them. They say it’s all right for them to have them, but Iraq not to have that right. The fact is that if you have weapons of mass destruction it doesn’t give you the right to invade another country. You can’t because you dislike the fact, you just invade. All the United States has done is expand the old Monroe Doctrine, whereby they think they own the whole of North and South America; into they now own the whole world. The difficulty is that they said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there were none. But even if there were, the first straw man that was put up was that there would be a United Nations vote in favour of the invasion. The older members here would remember that the United Nations Charter came into existence between VE day and VP day. It was about June 1945. There is nothing in the United Nations Charter which authorises an invasion. At that stage, in June 1945, I was only little at the time, there was no power, nor the right to invade anybody else in International Law. So if in fact there had been a United Nations Resolution authorising the invasion, it couldn’t have authorised the invasion at all, and any Nation could stand back and say “this is outside the charter. I am a member of the United Nations, but I am only a member of an organisation which doesn’t authorise invasions. The only invasion you can have is in self defence.” Self defence is, of course, approved by International Law as it is approved in everyday life. Nobody actually debated the question of whether there was a right to invade. So we had a totally dishonest debate.

Another technique which is very useful is to create the impression that something is a good thing and that if you don’t go along with it, then you’re the one that is out of line, and therefore the press will be against you. Many of you will be aware that there are a series of Ministerial Councils such as the Committee of the Attorney’s General which get together and determine on what legal changes ought to occur in Australia. The law that has just occurred in the NSW Parliament was changes in the law on double jeopardy. So that if you are acquitted by a jury, and someone can persuade someone in a prison to give evidence against you, alleging that you admitted that you did it, you can re-open the case and have a new trial. This means a new trial, not only for the victim but for the family of the victims, witnesses and so on. But that legal change occurred because the State election was coming up and everyone looks at Law and Order as their first policy, second policy and third policy, and then they occasionally talk about other things to fill up the time. But how did they do it? There was a resolution of the Standing Committee of Attorneys General, which includes New Zealand, the Commonwealth and all the States and Territories that the laws on double jeopardy follow what’s happened in the United Kingdom. That is a country, in recent times that does not have a great record on Human Rights.

But who actually made that decision? Was it a democratic decision? Did the Parliament of each of the States and the Commonwealth debate the issue, consult the electorate, bring it before the government, and have the government introduce legislation? Not at all! All that happens is the Attorney General, or the Health Minister and so on, turns up at a meeting, they talk about some issue, someone has an idea, they agree on it, they resolve it, the get some papers done, and it becomes an agreement of the Council of the Attorneys General. So that States happy to have a law and order issue to run with, suddenly start introducing legislation, and say that it has been a COAG agreement. Its actually not, It’s actually people who didn’t refer back to their governments, usually, don’t refer to their parliaments, it just happens to be an idea that they personally like. If you as a citizen or opposition then want to oppose Double Jeopardy, you have been wrong footed, because the people that have said that this is a COAG agreement have no authority at all to agree on something. This is one of the two big current perversions of the Democratic process.

The other is the growth of Prime Minister in Cabinet and Premier and in Cabinet offices, a new tier of Government. We used to have an agreement between all the states setting up a Ministerial Council on Companies. The power over companies was challenged in the High Court and there was then a move to set up a centralised corporation’s code. What happened was, I was then New South Wales Attorney General, it was not my responsibility because we had a Companies Minister, the State Attorney General for Victoria, Jim Kennan (Labour), rang me up and said “John, cant we settle this?” I said “Jim, wrong minister” he said “yeah, sure sure, cant we settle this?” I went down to Victoria and I took an Officer with me, and we sat down there, and we articulated and outlined the case for having a central corporations code, and we then took it back to our officers, and they said that why it wasn’t a good thing. We had a series of meetings and eventually Jim Kennan, the Federal Attorney General, Michael Duffy (Labour) and I, met in Melbourne with one officer each in the treasury building on a Sunday night and nutted out the whole process for an Australian corporations code and that in fact ultimately became the basis for the law. I knew without referring to anybody that that is what the parliament would want, and what the people would want because no one understands the issue and simplicity is always a good thing and is easy to argue. We didn’t represent any body, it was our views. The result was generally approved, but it needn’t have been.

The next technique is the labelling process. Now, we saw this with illegal migrants. Illegals — that terrible word. Most of the illegals as you have realised, are people from the United States, United Kingdom, and China who overstayed their visas. They are the illegals, they are the ones that commit offences, they are the criminals, but they are not the ones we talk about because we are used to having those people around. But you get people desperate to come from a country like Irian Jaya, which we Australians, in 1968 sold out when the “Act of No Choice” occurred in 1969. These people have been persecuted and terrorised there, a number of them try to come here, and we label them as illegals. We then go to the Indonesians and apologise, why are we sorry? These people legally left to escape terrorism, came here as legal refugees. These are legal under the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a party, and of course we then went through a whole series of parliamentary antics on the issue. I knew that, working for them, were the people in the Immigration Department. Immigration doesn’t have a great image, but I knew that the people that made the decision on refugee applications would in fact say that these people are legally entitled to be here, and of course the decision was made to admit them. The labelling process — that someone who comes here as an asylum seeker, is not an “illegal”, the person is legal, and even if found not to have a valid asylum claim, it doesn’t automatically make them illegal, they are legally here as asylum applicants. So that the public of course, who don’t have good prejudices about migration, unfortunately, don’t want to know about these people. What you have got to remember, particularly to the audience here, that if you think about things, you’re not typical, and whatever appeals to you, remember it doesn’t appeal to the people outside. I once said to Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, who I have known for a long time, “every time you get my blood pressure up, I know you’re winning votes.”

Hicks’s was the same. In my organisation, The International Commission of Jurists, it was a long time before any one was interested, and what does the government do? The government labels him; they label him as a dangerous and evil man. I mean you know when he was arrested, he was waiting at a taxi stand, and there must be something pretty vicious to be waiting at a taxi stand in Afghanistan. He is a prisoner of war, and prisoners of war don’t get charged with anything because they don’t commit offences. People forget that it was not the Taliban who changed sides in Afghanistan. It was actually the United States, they were sort of fighting with them and then they decided to fight against them. How did the Taliban become badies? It’s not illegal to invade Afghanistan if Al Qaida is there; it’s an act of self defence collectively. I am not suggesting that, but it doesn’t make the Taliban illegal, and it doesn’t make people there from whatever country they are from illegal. But what does the United States do? They label him as evil even though he hasn’t been convicted of any offence, hasn’t been charged with an offence known to International or Australian Law, and yet the public are prejudiced, until now its starting to come out through his wonderful Major Mori defence council, which actually makes you proud of being a lawyer, is doing something about that, but of course, again, it is about perceptions. The Attorney General says “we have been to the United States and Hicks will be bought on before the Military Commission. The Military Commission has been set up with all the assurances we were given.” The assurances that that they were given are not in accordance with International Law, but that’s what I heard the Attorney General say the other night. The U.S. assurances mean it will be tried by military people, whose Commander in Chief, the President has demonised and convicted him already with a procedure that will not allow full access to evidence and a whole series of breaches such as hearsay evidence. This is a Military Commission, it is not a court, it is not a trial, and of course hands up those who think he is going to be acquitted. Now why, when we can go into so much nonsense about drug people convicted on drug offences in Indonesia, why is this person who hasn’t committed any offence is as evil as that? Therefore the perception is that he is a bad man. Fortunately, independent people are now starting to do something about it.

The last note, I just want to remind you about perceptions, it is the politician’s art of articulating the prejudices of your audience. The leader of the looney riot in the NSW Liberal Party, will go to an ethnic function and will find out what the issues are, and will passionately argue their cause more passionately than the audience would. I have seen him now do it twice, once at a Cyprus Function, where he talked about the evils of Turkey and so on. You see the audience being caught in by this perception. Then he went to a Vietnamese function and he talked about the Dead communists and all of that passionately and of course the audience loved it because he told them what was in their hearts, he articulated for them, and of course that’s the recruiting method he uses, so you then send the new members round to Liberal Party branches and distort the Parliamentary democratic process.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have given you a series of examples to underline that Politics is about perceptions. I ask you to make sure that you analyse each issue that comes up and ask a question every so often, because it is independent scholars who will say “Hey! Wait a minute”. We need people watching politics who are like the little boy who hadn’t been told that the Emperor had new clothes.

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